Carlos Quintana is an extroverted, polemical artist, capable of generating contradictory feelings of sympathy and rejection in the Cuban art media. Some years ago I contacted him for the first time to check on the words he had written for a catalogue of his works commissioned by his gallery manager and friend Luis Miret. A few hours before the meeting I was warned by a colleague about the tensions that could arise during that joint review, considering his reputation as a mistrustful and questioning person. But it turned out completely different, and although that work exchange was not exempt of some divergent nuances, we came to understand each other very well. My reflections on the ensemble of his work were enriched by the anecdotes and assessments contributed by Quintana, and from that moment on a professional and human empathy arose between us (perhaps reinforced by one or the other mythical contingency) that has existed until the present.
Not only have I been able to confirm a less “pernicious” side of Quintana’s personality, but I began to realize that the conceptual and allegorical motivations of his works should be examined in light of that strong contrast that governs his existence; that struggle between measured and dissolute, trustful and distrustful, ordinary and unusual. I would say more. I would say that Carlos Quintana is a good pretext to continue persevering in the hypotheses of correlation between the artist and his symbolic production, to keep insisting on the contribution that this opinion may have in the objective adoption of art criticism. I make this assertion at a moment when that analogical orientation seems to be losing interest among the recent development of historians and art critics, more inclined to a distant impartial posture while taking on the research processes, which has even reached the dimension of a model in some academic campuses of the country.
I would dare to be even more categorical and say that there is an absence of extrovert and uncomfortable artists like Carlos Quintana because we are going through a period of certain “homogeneity” with regard to the profile of the visual artist, and certain traditional notions of aura and creative spirit begin to appear diffuse. Now, within the range of time and action from the academic training to the interaction with the gallery circuit, protocol strategies seem to be prioritized, and for methods of transaction and reintegration that have proven to be efficient, instead of searching for alternatives to strengthen the imperatives of personal autonomy; those spaces of confrontation that nourish and encourage the artist’s convulsive and dialectic nature, where anguish and poetic obsessions are enhanced.
Undoubtedly, some of those open, irreverent aspects of Quintana’s behavior have influenced the curiosity and suggestion aroused among us by his personality and his work. But other aspects of his artistic activity appear to me to be more prominent and influential in what we could call “the concurrent vision” of these times. And it is because Carlos Quintana, in addition to the promotional and commercial success attained in the country and abroad, has become a true archetype within the trend of formal and tropological recombination being experienced by some Cuban painters with the use of symbols and precepts of the Afro-Cuban and Asian cultures. Few have been as licentious and obsessive in this field as Quintana.
It is no less true that, long before he appeared on the Cuban art scene, some artists had left traces of that coincidence in the representational and aesthetic criteria of painting and drawing. However, from my point of view, in doing so they had started from a poetic, moderate re-assimilation of the Western and Caribbean iconographic stereotypes; whereas another much smaller group decided to face directly the cultural and ideological precepts of the times to rehearse alternatives of conceptual and philosophical “liquefaction” between the symbolic Eastern legacy and the autochthonous one. Several of those artists, limited by the evaluative prejudices of the medium, only succeeded in leaving a reserved mark in the base of their best-known works by transferring Hindu and Buddhist concepts from the spiritual infiltration conditioned by meditation practices such as Yoga and Zen. I think that the public legacy of that trend, defended against the current, reflected until very recently a perspective more rational than physical and more gnostic than representative.
With the reactivation of painting in the 1990s and 2000s, during which time Quintana’s work gained strong recognition in Cuba and abroad, those restricted interests and trends began to revive and gain new roles in specific areas of the Cuban symbolic production, particularly in two-dimensional works. Influential here were also the will to restore the methodology and allegory of the visual arts during that period, and the adoption by some institutions and State galleries of a somewhat more tolerant approach toward the artistic postulates.
The singularities of this integrative process of painting, in which (unintentionally) Quintana has been playing a leading role, began to be corroborated in the first instance (and attending to the accumulated expectations) from a morphological dimension. Many of those who practice art criticism on the Island today, even the most controversial or unbelieving, insist on recognizing this emblematic condition of the artist, especially among generations of young painters, although very few have devoted themselves to explaining the methodological and technical justifications. This article aims to suggest some.
In my view, one of the things that has guaranteed the positive acceptance and influence of Quintana in the contemporary art scene is that his works have dissipated, gradually and subtly, the weight of the localist associations for the figurations and symbolic objects he uses to achieve a more expansive, open impression. This is a formula for structuring and association that, more than making us reflect (for the umpteenth time) on the historical paths of imposition or syncretism we have traversed, induces us to believe in other dilemmas of global interrelation. It compels us to glimpse the validity of similar cultural foundations, concomitant, regardless of their geographical origins.
In any of Carlos Quintana’s paintings we can observe, separately or in whimsical formal combination, a number of emblematic artifacts we know or at least identify, and which we seldom have seen integrated to those levels (at least in the turn-of-the century Cuban visual art we have seen). There are those elements that suggest at the same time the representation of Asian pots and of Yoruba pots. In his works there is a reiterated presence of dissimilar animals, the surreal mixture of atypical species of certain ethnic and religious substrates: dogs, sheep, horses, and camels, with no direct display of their attributes in any of them or openly showing the well-known cipher of their involvement in the narrative space of the piece. Quintana constantly draws men in groups or in a procession, which at certain moments reveals precise information about their lineage (a Tibetan monk, a samurai) but who could also be taken for godfathers, consultants, priests of Ifá. People are depicted in his canvases in acts of devotion, and the public ignorant of those themes may connect both of them with scenes of the Afro-Cuban religion and with suggestive Buddhist landscapes.
In the surreal references, among those beings he calls “appearances”, one almost always succeeds in discovering the features of a real person (a friend, a girlfriend, a relative), but also the signs of some epic, mythological character. The heads that levitate on his compositions, or that have been cut and placed on clay pottery (repeated motifs of his work) emulate very frequently the physiognomy of a Buddhist statuette and also with the prototype of a Creole Elegguá.
Everything is interconnected, uninhibitedly superimposed on the perceptual and representative logic of Quintana. That is why I do not think it is prudent to restrict his work to a single basis of interpretation. If we make a careful review of his works over these years, we might confirm the force and swiftness of such transitions or intercultural leaps that almost always seem to be accompanied by a spiritual trance, a situational limit of existential or spiritual nature. The titles of his pieces, more than names, are like brief statements or callings, irrefutable proof of those determinant instants; they are a kind of parallel narrative that, although it may seem otherwise, contributes the sequential and intimate perspective of his situation as author at a given moment.
Sometimes we identify a more ecumenical and other times a more regionalist Carlos Quintana. On occasions we perceive him giving testimony, inquiring; at other times performative, attached to a ritual that prioritizes interventions and installation pieces. Quite often he seems distant, trying to escape, trying to verify other people’s certainties, and still at other moments clinging to deep roots, attempting to amplify the coordinates of our ancestral lucubrations. His, undoubtedly, is an anthropological vocation of generic dimensions, of relationship, which is also gaining solid relevance in other forms of artistic creation such as music or theater.
The eclectic and at the same time condensed treatment of his drawing and painting, the often anarchic approach of his symbolic interconnections and the distinctive assemblages that derive from them (I have seen more than one painting that may be observed and interpreted from any angle), the meditative and devotional atmospheres that emerge from his scenes without taking their stand on doctrines or rigid folklore, the skillful and atypical broaching of the human body that takes from both the classical and the contemporary, and from modernist and traditional nuances, are first level artifices to justify his validation and permanence within the Cuban visual arts universe, more caustic and unbelieving than ever.
But nothing has aroused so much interest, nothing has had such impact as that undaunted, uninhibited neo-expressionist stroke he uses to create his images; the drawing, chromatically effusive, insolent profile that, unprejudiced, carries codes related to the mystical and pagan, the ceremonial and the civic; that combines from different angles the rustic, pronounced geometry of Afro-Cuban iconography with the gestures and sinuous forms of the Asian line. It is toward that zone of compositional wiles that many new painters of the Island repeatedly turn their attention with a sense of simulacrum and discernment.